Karnes City ISD Superintendent Jeanette Winn
Karnes City ISD Superintendent Jeanette Winn Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

When Ann Dixon first became superintendent of Somerset Independent School District in 1989, a colleague told her she was only the 13th female superintendent in the state. Texas Education Agency data shows that Dixon was one of 42 women, but the perception of limited female representation wasn’t far off: Women accounted for just 4 percent of the state’s total number of school superintendents.

Dixon remembers gathering with other female superintendents at a Texas Association of School Administrators mid-winter conference that same year. It wasn’t a large group.

“We met at a bar in a Hilton and all could sit around a table in the cocktail lounge,” she said.

Over time, the gender representation has become more, but not entirely, balanced. In 2017-18, the TEA reported that 282 of the state’s 1,199 districts are led by women. Since 1989, female superintendent representation increased from 4 percent to 23.5 percent.

But that representation isn’t widespread – in the San Antonio and surrounding Hill County area, women tend to lead rural districts with smaller enrollment numbers. Throughout Bexar County, just one of the 15 total school districts has a female superintendent.

Some qualities unify the women leading nearby districts: the five female superintendents the Rivard Report spoke to for this story said they chose smaller districts so they could interact with students on a daily basis. Each of the five credited their mentors as a major factor in their own career advancement. None of them were job-hoppers: each spent at least double the average three- to four-year term a typical superintendent spends atop a district.

Despite their talent and work ethic, they still encountered instances of gender bias in the workplace, which were pervasive throughout their careers.

Though the numbers and the perception of female leadership has shifted since Dixon started her career, she said the type of women filling the top district role hasn’t changed.

Ann Dixon has held the title of Superintendent at 17 different Texas school districts. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“They were all groomed to be leaders,” she said. “I am almost intimidated to be around the women superintendents nowadays. They are just geniuses. … But the thing about women is, they have to do their time.”

Long-term commitment

Former D’Hanis ISD Superintendent Pam Seipp said she isn’t a “big mover.” Other than two one-year stints at different districts in north Texas for her first years of teaching, she spent the majority of her career in two districts.

For 23 years, Seipp worked in Fort Davis ISD, a West Texas school district home to little more than 300 students and one paved road. She spent her more than two-decade term there advancing from her position as a high school science teacher to assistant superintendent.

Along the way, Seipp said she faced “hurts” from hiring decisions that didn’t go her way that eventually became unspoken challenges pushing her forward.

Fort Davis ISD was small and, with little turnover at the administrator level, provided few opportunities to advance. After Seipp obtained her principal certification, the only principal opening was at the high school. She applied but lost out to a male colleague.

Seipp said board members told her informally that she wasn’t chosen because the hiring committee didn’t think she could take care of the football field.

The next year, the elementary principal left the district, and Seipp was hired. She also taught as an adjunct professor at Sul Ross State University in Alpine and used the extra income to get her superintendent certification.

At Fort Davis, Seipp eventually moved up to the high school principal job. After four-and-a-half years there and another change to the district’s central office, the new superintendent promoted Seipp to be his deputy.

“It was because of my longevity there. I knew the parents, I knew the community. I worked with [that superintendent] for about a year, and he said, ‘You know, you need to be doing [the superintendent job.] You are doing [the work], so you need to be [the superintendent.]’”

But it never happened. In 23 years, Seipp worked with five different superintendents in Fort Davis. All were male, and all had experience as a high school principal or coach, she said.

When Seipp and her husband began to discuss retiring to a family ranch near Fredricksburg in the early 2000s, she still aspired to be a superintendent.

She took a compass and drew a 150-mile radius around the ranch to look for job prospects and found D’Hanis ISD, a district with one paved road and 326 students. It was about 120 miles from her ranch.

“I knew I would have to live separate from my husband, but I really wanted to [be superintendent] and say that I did it,” she said. “Although no one ever formally issued a challenge to me, I felt like it was a challenge.”

Seipp started her job as superintendent of D’Hanis ISD in 2005 and held the position for seven years before retiring. She lived on the school district land in a house and the district leased space across the street for her to stable her horse.

Former D’Hanis ISD Superintendent Pam Seipp. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Finding a place in small districts

Three months after she retired, Seipp started again as an interim superintendent in other small districts around the state. She said these small districts are perceived as undesirable to many who want to advance to bigger districts and higher pay.

“I believe that many men do not necessarily want to go to a small school and stay,” she said. “They may want to go and use it as a step to the next level, but I don’t think that they are always looking for that small school.”

According to Texas A&M professor emeritus Linda Skrla, who researched the topic of women in the superintendency for two decades, this is a common belief in Texas. Skrla said small districts can be seen as “starter jobs” that are less desirable to take at the beginning of a career.

Like Seipp, Hunt ISD Superintendent Crystal Dockery said she was attracted to the small size of her district and the opportunities the superintendent position offered.

Hunt ISD serves 197 students from pre-K to eighth grade, and is a small community. Dockery said in her role, she can walk down the hallway and have meaningful interactions with students on a daily basis, adding that each day, students visit her at her office and remind her why she wanted to be in education.

“In truth, when I chose Hunt for my superintendency, I fell in love with the area,” she said. “The days when I’m doing finance or construction and want to choke people, I can walk into a first-grade classroom and read a story, and it’s all good with me after that.”

Karnes City ISD Superintendent Jeanette Winn shares Dockery’s sense of commitment to her district. Winn started as an elementary principal and went on to serve as principal at the junior and high school before moving up to superintendent.

Winn said people often ask her where her career will take her next, but she has no plans to leave. She said her contract likely will be extended through 2021 in July, and she plans to remain in the district at least until then.

Karnes City ISD Superintendent Jeanette Winn Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“A lot of people go to a larger district, but I just feel like there is so much more to accomplish here,” Winn said. “I just feel like I can effect more positive change in a smaller district. When you get into those large districts, it is like trying to turn a giant cruise liner; whereas I am like a small boat.”

Needed family support

Dockery posited that female superintendents who have children tend to want to keep them where they are happy. Those family and community roots often keep them in place, rather than moving from place to place in search of ever-bigger jobs.

To move to a larger district, “I would have to live separate from my husband. We have family land here,” Winn said. “Whether or not you make more money than your husband, you are not really considered the primary breadwinner.”

Winn’s choice is not unfamiliar to her peers. While Seipp was a superintendent, she lived apart from her husband for more than seven years.

Dixon, too, knows the support one needs from family and friends. Since she retired, Dixon has been the interim superintendent for 17 different districts. Some weeks, she flies to her interim district on a Monday and doesn’t return until Friday. Without the support of her family, she said, she couldn’t continue her career.

Influence from mentors

Bandera ISD Superintendent Regina Howell Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Bandera ISD Superintendent Regina Howell counts influential women mentors among her support network. She says she was pulled up by supervisors, colleagues, and sometimes, outside observers who witnessed her work ethic and devotion.

From the beginning of her career, Howell never strategized about how to become a superintendent. Early on, she turned down the opportunity to become a principal because her kids were young and her husband had heavy time commitments as a band director.

She took on extra tasks at her districts – in addition to teaching, she oversaw the dance team, cheerleading squad, and Spanish club. It took a meeting with a visiting University of Texas at Austin professor to convince Howell that she should seek a promotion and enroll in graduate school.

Howell enrolled at UT-Austin to get her principal certification. While instructors encouraged her and fellow classmates to pursue superintendent jobs, they also offered advice about interviews that illustrated how women can be perceived as they seek high-level jobs.

Howell recalls instructors telling her to adjust her chair height so that it was lower than those of board members and not to wear a bow in her hair during interviews.

“I wonder if they tell a man, ‘You need to grow hair, or wear a different color tie,’” Dockery said. “I found it upsetting in that I want someone to hire me not based on what I look like. I want them to hire me because I am capable, intelligent, and can do a good job for the district.”

When an elementary principal job became available in Bandera ISD, where Howell was then teaching, the district encouraged her to apply. A male colleague got the job, but contract negotiations fell through, and Howell was offered the position.

Before accepting, Howell said she wanted to hear why she wasn’t the hiring committee’s first choice.

Howell said committee members told her there were discipline problems on the elementary campus, and they didn’t believe a woman could handle the task.

“It was that male-female thing,” she said. “It was very specific to discipline…it was about, ‘Only a male could do that.’”

Howell accepted the job, hired an assistant principal to oversee disciplinary issues, and described their partnership and approach to managing the school as “perfect.”

Howell credits Renee Schulze, who served as Bandera ISD superintendent until 2006, for her jump from campus to district administration. When Schulze was promoted to superintendent, she tapped Howell to move up to central office as executive director of personnel.

Howell continued to advance, and when she was assistant superintendent, two female trustees approached Howell and told her it was time she consider the next step up. They told her she couldn’t make “any more excuses” or retire.

“They said, ‘We need you now,’” Howell said. “You don’t think [intentional mentoring] is happening to you until you ask the questions and you go, ‘Oh my gosh, every one of [my mentors] was female.’”

Howell announced her retirement in April after six years as superintendent. She said she wouldn’t be surprised if the board hired a male to replace her, given that her district, like many others, wants to focus on improving athletics.

Hunt ISD Superintendent Crystal Dockery Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Dockery, who also recently announced her retirement, said that in her experience, school boards tend to consider one female superintendent as representative of the gender as a whole.

“A district can have a woman as a superintendent and have a bad experience perhaps, and then you will hear school board members or committee members say, ‘We had a woman once, but we won’t do that again,’” she said. “The truth is, they may have had a lot of men who did not work out but you won’t hear them say the same thing.”

Dockery hopes her replacement will be the right person for the job, but also said, “If there is a woman who is a rock star and gets in there and does some amazing things, I will be doubly pumped.”

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.